Beef-Eaters and Arson in the Amazon
While we wait for Elon Musk to be ejected from the invisible pneumatic fish tube he likely has crisscrossing the planet, we can be distraught about all disasters. We don’t have to choose between the Amazon and Notre Dame. Once he arrives in Brazil he’ll implement whatever top-secret Thai cave magic he’s been inventing to save the rain forests while we’ve been posting memes and bickering about Notre Dame.
As the Amazon continues to burn, with 84% more wildfires than last year¹, social media is raging with privilege-shaming memes and posts that contrast the instantaneous global heartache for the Notre Dame fire with the media indifference in covering the fires burning through the Amazon — and the subsequent disparity in international fundraising as though media coverage and compassion are zero-sum games.
But the trending hashtags and online venting are not putting the fires out. Stop comparing/contrasting with Notre Dame. Yes, the media should’ve covered the Amazon fires sooner and with as much nonstop coverage as Notre Dame. No, it’s not the billionaires’ responsibility to save everyone from everything. And yes, I wish they would since governments have been bought, in many cases by those billionaires. But since they’re not, are you willing to eat more expensive local meat and eat it less often in order to shift global consumption patterns and international markets? No? Maybe? Until you are, spare us the memes.
Humans didn’t destroy Notre Dame to repurpose the wood or any of its components. Cattle ranchers didn’t light a cathedral on fire so they could expand cow pastures across the ashes of the unfertile soil — but they did clear land for grazing this way.
And the silence from the billionaire philanthropists isn’t deafening, Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna have spoken.
“Leo to the rescue” proclaims The Associated Press. Philanthropists Laurene Powell Jobs and Brian Sheth joined DiCaprio in founding Earth Alliance. They launched the Amazon Forest Fund today and are seeking donations to help. Funds raised will be distributed to five local agencies: Instituto Associacao Floresta Protegida, Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, Instituto Kabu, Instituto Raoni, and Instituto Socioambiental.¹
The disparity in the media coverage of both fires is a short-term form of ambulance-chasing. The sensationalism that borders on immoral. But perhaps it is more lucrative to film the contained fire of a pretty building, the destruction of globally beloved architecture, in a sense a form of ego-stroking self-pity, than it is to report on a terrifying reality that is literally jeopardizing all life on Earth. They can sell our short-attention spans bite-sized romantic tragedy. We’ll buy it. But a tougher sell is the Armageddon-level horror we brought on ourselves. And coverage of the burning Amazon is unlikely to offer the inspiration porn pay-off we’ve become accustomed to in exchange for “enduring” two-dimensional suffering on our screens. Like many social crises, this is not a supply-side problem. It’s a demand-driven one.
The fact that the Amazon fires didn’t turn into an overnight cause célèbre among the billionaire philanthropists and a 24-hour-a-day headliner is heartbreaking. But runaway capitalism has run away without us if we’re depending on private citizens instead of each country’s Department of Forestry and National Guard equivalents to act as first responders to natural disasters and human-caused crises. If people can’t depend on the governments they fund with their taxes to do for the public what individuals can’t do for themselves then every natural disaster will function like a Go Fund Me with the best or highest-profile campaigns netting the most donations. Everything is monetized.
But we can grieve a cathedral and an ecoystem. Humans have the capacity to grieve different kinds of tragedy, even simultaneously. As a meme I do like says, we humans are just houseplants with more complicated emotions.
The collective radio silence from the billionaire philanthropists, (who, by the way, are not responsible for saving us ), is disappointing but it is the tax-funded governments who should be protecting their people first and foremost. The international community should stand ready to help with all available resources — MAFFS, helicopters, C-130 planes, firefighters, smokejumpers, fire retardants and airtankers.
In the meantime, and before the next land-use crisis, are we ready to stop eating cheap exported beef² and/or start buying local at a higher price? Raising money to replace one building is easier to wrap our minds around than making individual choices in the hopes that it will affect global markets in order to protect the incomprehensible complexity of the biosphere.
But instead of breaking the internet with public declarations of going vegan, eating ranch-to-table beef or meatless Mondays, instead of posting links to organizations we can donate to or contact info for politicians we can email the usual suspects are popping up — memes, thoughts, prayers and sad-face emojis.
That’s right. Thoughts and prayers aren’t just for school shootings anymore. This time they’re for the lungs of the earth so we don’t have to make any personal sacrifices.
I am a firm believer in the power of prayer but I am also a firm believer in action. Not in distracting ourselves with false equivalencies. We need to be calling on Bolsonaro to deploy every last resource at his disposal. Not presupposing that our facebook friends cared more about Notre Dame than they do about the rainforest and shaming them with presumptuous memes.
The guilt here lies not with our ego-driven love of beautiful buildings or villainous wallet-clutching billionaires but with demand-driven beef production and wild west capitalism. Brazil isn’t the only culprit.
“Last year the country shipped 1.64 million tonnes of beef — the highest volume in history — generating $6.57 billion in revenue, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association (Abiec), an association of more than 30 Brazilian meat-packing companies.”²
Worldwide beef consumption plays a lead role in Bolsonaro’s sanctioned destruction of the rainforest by private ranchers and farmers, in addition to the loggers who’ve long used this as an industrial practice. Since Bolsonaro simultaneously cut Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency’s budget by $23 million³ the priority is clear.
But posting pictures of the poor animals suffering unspeakable pain and death is easier than confronting our own lifestyles and examining how our dietary choices contribute to global consumption patterns — and changing them accordingly.
Donating to the reconstruction fund of Notre Dame is much easier than changing your lifestyle if you’re a beef-eater. And posting memes is even easier.
But if you must compare the two I can see why our fragile egos would prefer to mourn the sudden unexpected and unexplained loss of one of our own creations rather than tackling the global industry that supplies our demand for burgers and steaks.
We could ask President Trump to flex the American military hegemony for good with a sky parade that covers the Amazon in red, white and blue fire retardant. And we can ask Oncle François-Henri Pinault to write another check to pay for it.
Again, we don’t have to choose between Notre Dame and the Amazon. If we lose our love and appreciation for beauty we lose our humanity. Let’s not shame each other for grieving art and architecture — beauty not bound by nationality or geography unifies us.
Do know that if we lose our biodiversity we lose everything? Do we need to be reminded? Either way, let’s stay focused on eating local beef and less of it. And remind those who have forgotten what tax-funded governments are supposed to be doing for their taxpayers instead of shining the Bat-Signal in the sky and waiting for Bruce Wayne to save us from ourselves.